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Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi:

Quenching the Flames


The Fire Sermon (Samyutta Nikaya 35:28) is one of the most powerful expressions of spiritual truth ever uttered. It was one of the first discourses in the Buddha's ministry, addressed to a thousand monks who had formerly been fire-worshipping ascetics. Though spoken long before the rise of corporate capitalism and modern technologies of war, this discourse is prescient in its diagnosis of the human condition.

The Buddha begins with the blunt declaration that everything is burning. And without wincing he takes us straight to the heart of the matter: the world is burning with the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.  From the dawn of history, these primal drives of the mind have been at the root of all human misery, but today they have swelled up in a conflagration. In our present-day global community they exist not only as motives in individual minds but as forces that shape and empower colossal social systems spread out across the earth. They encroach on all aspects of our lives, and hardly anyone can escape being singed by their flames.

In my view, the manifestation of greed that should trouble us most is not the raw desire for sensual pleasures but the lust for power and domination. This is the greed that underlies financial fraud and corporate imperialism. This is the greed that propels a gargantuan economy that devours ever diminishing stocks of fossil fuels, minerals, water, and forests. This is the greed that blinds us to the future, so that, in our quest for profits and quick gratification, we're ready to leave later generations the task of restoring a damaged planet.

Hatred today still erupts in wars and violence, in racial and ethnic conflict, but its most egregious manifestation is indifference, a disposition to close our hearts to those we do not know and reduce them to bare statistics. It thrives under the cover of fear and suspicion, the labels of "alien" and "outsider." Delusion means not only ignorance and wrong views, but also distraction, which is constantly foistered on us by a commercial culture that thrives on novelty and rapid change. Under the impact of this culture, we restlessly seek what is new and different. Often, rather than probe into the facts, we find it more convenient to let ourselves be deceived. For instance, while climate scientists tell us that global warming is real and we have to change our ways, radio demagogues and political hacks mock their warnings, leading the gullible into an illusory rose garden. Yet the consequences of this neglect are already starting to blow back on us and include, not only freakish weather events and the loss of biodiversity, but a shrinking food supply that puts millions of lives at risk.

In the Fire Sermon, the Buddha says that the way to win release from the fires consuming our world is by extinguishing them at their point of origin. This means extinguishing them in the mind, through a regimen of mindfulness, clear comprehension, and meditative insight. Given, however, the global spread of greed, hatred, and delusion, given too their proportions and systemic embodiments, the task of quenching the flames calls for a broader effort than that expressed in texts intended for a community of monastic renunciants.

Human life today might be seen as moving along two interwoven trajectories. One is the moral trajectory, the other the trajectory of sustainability. The moral trajectory is currently being driven by lust for profit and power, which is sucking up the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. The trajectory of sustainability is being propelled by an expanding population expected to reach nine billion by mid-century. Moreover, rising living standards in developing countries increase the pressure on the planet to provide resources to satisfy the expectations of their newly affluent middle classes.  If these two trajectories continue along their present arcs, in the not-too-distant future they are likely to converge, straining the sustaining capacity of our planet to a breaking point.

In my understanding, human flourishing requires that we bend both of these trajectories, a task that calls for more than merely personal effort. The moral trajectory must be bent in the direction of greater social and economic justice. The trajectory of sustainability must be bent away from unbridled growth toward a principle of sufficiency. While rooted in the same essential insights enunciated in the Fire Sermon, the actions we take must match the magnitude of our global crisis. To emerge intact, we all have to become firemen, a global fire department working together to mitigate the national and trans-national fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.

Such a project requires that we revisit the assumptions that underlie the prevailing economic model, which is geared toward the impossible ideal of perpetual growth. Instead, we must make our social institutions more equitable, so that we can provide everyone with the means to a dignified life. Our concept of the good life should emphasize contentment, generosity, and compassion rather than limitless production and consumption. We must learn to see the natural world as our home, our life-support system, and not merely as a source of raw materials for energy and industrial production.

The work of Buddhist Global Relief is a small step in this direction. Starting from the premise that "hunger is the worst illness" and "the gift of food is the gift of life," we try to ensure that people everywhere can obtain access to sufficient quantities of healthy and nutritious food. Through education and training, we aim to give women and girls a chance at a better life. We seek to help the poor emerge from poverty, and to give those with means the opportunity to put compassion and generosity into action. Inspired by the Buddhist ideals of loving-kindness and compassion, we seek to fashion a social order that embodies justice and equity for all and a code of ethics that expresses concern for the most needy in our midst.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a notable American Theravadin monk-scholar, the primary translator of many  original discourses of the Buddha, such as the Samyutta, Majjhima  & Anguttara Nikayas. He is the founder of Buddhist Global Relief & a co-author of the Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change. This essay is partly adapted from his recent Reflections on the Fire Sermon  (Parabola, Spring 2012). It can be read in full here.


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